Thursday, December 29, 2011

The year in liquid form

My my my, it's a beautiful world
I like swimming in the sea
I like to go out beyond the white breakers
Where a man can still be free — or a woman, if you are one
I like swimming in the sea
Colin Hay, "Beautiful World"
Flag buoy, Aquatic Park, San Francisco, Dec. 26, 2011. (Note Santa hat
where flag usually is.) Water temperature 49.7º F. Bring it!
What an enabler, my wife! With a cheery heart, a smiling voice and, I'll wager, more prayer than I'm aware of, she causes worlds to open up, and bids me explore.

With trepidation, for example, she resigned to the idea it was OK this year for me to stop looking for a job in the closed and collapsing teaching profession, and to spend my energy rebuilding my illustration business. It's a tenuous — OK, often stupid — choice requiring faith and calm.

So, too, with another new world this year, swimming open water.

At first, Nancy accompanied me for this strange and new pastime, and still serves as ground support for races and big events. Since then, she has accepted the low odds of my getting chomped in two by a shark — or, in fresh water, by whatever aquatic pet some kid released into the lake to become a monster fattened on swimmers' flesh — and does her own thing while I swim.

And swim and swim and swim, five or six days a week, usually in Lake Natoma, where I plan to stay through the new year.

As I might have mentioned before, I never really thought it would be this way. Sure, I set sights on Alcatraz long ago, but never truly believed, not entirely anyway, that I'd do more than see the island through pay binoculars and wonder what might have been.

Still, moving toward that goal I joined a Sacramento-area swim group through meetup.com, which got me to an introductory clinic on swimming San Francisco Bay last November. Suzie Dods, a legendary member of the South End Rowing Club near Fisherman's Wharf, led Myron Dong (our meetup.com group's chief cheerleader and organizer) and me on a short swim around buoys in the water. I decided at the last moment to swim without a wetsuit, and felt great.

Then began the discombobulation.

Not all parties have weighed in, but I'm guessing this is the logo
we crazies will adopt for ensuing adventures …
The meetup group started swimming February weekends in Lake Natoma, in horribly chilly, thought-numbing water. I floundered in frustration, making the mistake of believing all those laps in the pool would steel me for open water. Cold trumps all. Now I warn new open-water swimmers against similar hubris.

I started in a wetsuit because I thought that's the only way a human being could swim winter water.

Two events changed that:

1. I look like a manatee in a wetsuit, except less dainty and curvaceous, and with a DayGlo® dome. Not usually vain, I draw the line at wetsuits, and swim without mostly because I'm stupid and stubborn. Plus I hate the constraint of a neoprene straitjacket on my arms and shoulders.

Wetsuits welcome, of course. We skin
swimmers just like to poke fun.
2. Wearing just a cap, goggles and jammers A guy named Brad Schindler sliced through our wetsuited group and disappeared into the winter mists, returning less than a half-hour later, having swum around an island I had yet to see but have circumnavigated dozens of times since. Before summer ended, Brad became one of only a couple of dozen people to swim the 22-mile length of Lake Tahoe without a wetsuit. Until Brad hit the water that February morning, it never occurred to me that I might be able to swim without a wetsuit. For the next month, for increasing periods after every swim, I splashed about without my wetsuit. After that month, and ever since, I've gone without.

On one of these so-called polar bear swims, I had forgotten my goggles, and was ready to drive home and call it a morning. I solve problems with expeditious caprice, and have to talk myself into taking a moment to think of better alternatives. This time my wife thought of it for me.

"Just go ask someone," she said, through gritted teeth. When I finally did, a guy named Jim Morrill lent me a pair, and I was able to swim.

In quick time I found Jim my opposite in people skills, joining in any and every conversation, meeting new people without a whit of hesitation. Without any evidence that I could swim more than 100 yards, he was excitedly inviting me on swims months and miles from that date. I was willing, but not sure how able.

This is a distant second … first off, we don't confine our
lunacy to Nimbus Flat at the south end of the lake.
On our first rough-water swim of the season in March, I got a third of the way out into a Folsom Lake cove before a wave, and then another, and then another slapped me in the face. I stalled, unable to breathe, then puked water and decided immediately that open water swimming wasn't for me. I had tried, dammit, but it was time to sidestroke back to shore and go home. Then Jim swam back to where I was, asked if I was OK, and said, "Let's just swim 30 strokes, take your time, and see how you feel." I did, and felt better, in control.

"Let's go another 30 strokes," he said, and off we went again. "See?" he said. "No problem, you're doing great." Thirty strokes by 30 strokes, I finished the mile swim. Maybe I'll be back after all, I thought.

I think of that every time I swim, now often by myself in 50-degree water: Here I am, piercing the green, cold peaceful waters, the forests quiet on either side of me, the water a vast sheet of glass, gulls and buzzards lofting overhead, and someone made sure I didn't miss out on this by not letting me quit.

Now Jim is the one with whom I swim most often, when we get the chance. We've swum Aquatic Park, Treasure Island and Keller Beach in the San Francisco Bay.

I swim almost as often with another new partner in lunacy, Stacy Purcell, who's a scientist by heart and profession. Curious what the cold water is doing to us, he has us taking air, water and body temperatures to track trends as the temperatures fall.

I like this, but acknowledge its weirdness. I embrace its weirdness.
This new watery world has brought a lot of new friends. In short time, for example, I'm sure to see, somewhere in the middle of a swim, a body coming toward me at high speed. That'll be Kathy Morlan, one of the fastest open-water swimmers in northern California. She's taking a winter break, having donated a kidney to her son over the Christmas weekend. On top of all her swimming medals, she wins Mom of the Year.

With friends and alone, I have swum from Alcatraz, the nearly three miles of Donner Lake, the nearly five miles of Lake Natoma and long portions thereof, and have swum just for swimming's sake an average of five days a week. We have swum in broiling sun and in sideways rain and in opaque fog. We've swum before dawn and long after the evening sky has reddened and purpled. We have endured rowing crews who can't see us, and ski boats who refuse to. I regret to say I have only gone out beyond the white breakers once, with a group out of Avila Beach. But I plan to change that, and soon. The open water has only made me want more.

Honestly, I enjoy coming out of the water on a December morning and someone on the shore asking, "How can you do that?! How cold is the water, really?"

Next year, I'd like to swim from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge, about six miles with the tide. A couple of events have added 10k swims, and I'd like to be able to complete those. I'll swim Alcatraz again, at least once, and the length of Lake Natoma again. Crossing from Catalina Island to the mainland no longer seems impossible. Not next year, but who knows? Someday.
 
Feelin' groovy …
Just not today. I'm home from a 7 a.m. swim in which the surface temperature was 50 degrees F. The swim is never really so bad; it's the uncomfortable shivering after that I can do without. After another cup of hot water and a shower, I'll retrieve my bravado. My goal of swimming Lake Natoma year 'round remains the foremost challenge.

"I want to get stung by a jellyfish," I told Jim, meaning that if I did get stung, it'd be because I'd been swimming in the ocean long enough for the law of averages eventually to attack me. People, learning I'd been stung, would say, "Well, it figures, considering how often you swim in the ocean."

"Trust me," said Jim, a surfer since childhood, "you don't want to get stung by a jellyfish." But he takes my point.

Happy 2012. Find your adventure.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Mark Trail reaches a dead end?

Back in the states, suited up, Mark Trail begins to undermine his existence.
NooooooooooooOOOOO!

All this insipid strip needs is one more day — one miserable day! — to reach five straight months of nothingness. And it's just going to peter out now? A storyline equivalent of sap rising in a tree has ended, not with a bang or a whimper. What's less than a whimper?

This story held so much promise! Well, not promise exactly, but interest. No, not that either. Let's just say it held stubbornly to a space in the Sacramento Bee comics section, below the fold.

To recap: Almost five months ago — five months! In time as we humans perceive it! — outdoor magazine writer Mark Trail found a wounded goose with a gold leg band inscribed with a Bible passage. Lengthy uninteresting investigation brought him and his mottled crew of friends and co-workers to an idyllic valley in remotest Canada, where mountain lions lie with the mountain goats and all is peace under the rule of a buckskin-clad old woman named Mother McQueen. Yes, that one, mama to Canadian Mounted Police Officer McQueen.

Except nosy reporter Kelly Welly, on evidence so thin it didn't even exist, concluded that Mother McQueen's muzzled bear — kind of a diss on this dystopia — is trained to haul gold ore from a mine under a waterfall that irrigates the idyllic valley. Kelly somehow forced the bear to lead her to the mine. Turns out wolves were not part of this idyll, because a pack attacked the muzzled and, therefore, defenseless bear. No problem: Mark Trail came upon the scene just in time sics his St. Bernard, Andy, and an as-yet-unseen dog, Princess, who together chased off the howling pack. Of course.

That was climax of this nothing story, it develops, because afterward Mother McQueen, serving a fine feast of peace-loving animals, confessed to all that the gold mine is just a played-out hole yielding only enough gold for her poor departed husband to have minted only a couple of bird bands. For some reason or another. Ho hum.

In the end, Mark Trail, who makes his living digging up stories that he can write for an outdoor magazine — and who defied arrest to be allowed into this strange valley — decided after nearly five months of lethargy and nothingness that not only won't he write a story about the discovery, but he will forbid Kelly Welly from publishing any photos, lest any other nosies ever want to explore this mysterious valley. In today's strip,  Mark is at his editor's office, heading off Kelly's attempts to file a story, with photos that'll ruin everything.

In the Mark Trail world, the editor will congratulate Mark for wasting all his time and producing nothing. Mark might even get paid hush money, but it will be called something else. Kelly will be fired, or sent to the secretarial pool, where in this world still exists a vast grid of typewriter-topped desks. 

(It later turns out that Mark stole the memory card from Kelly Welly's camera, even though she was doing her job, gathering information for a story, for which she would be paid, and doing nothing illegal or untoward. But Mark's theft is somehow OK and virtuous, because he's already off on the next unadventure.)

I predict I will mourn the cumulative seven minutes and 14 seconds I have wasted following this strip do nothing for nearly five months, and will vow never to read it again. And will break that vow.

(Find fun Mark Trail commentary here.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bittersweet

The inscription for this holiday card inspired its illustration.

My daughter wrote this haiku when she was 10 (she's 19 now):
Icy orange fruit,
American bittersweet
blossoms in the cold.
"I'd like to turn this into a Christmas card?" I said, stunned.

"Why?" Maura asked, underwhelmed.

Why? It's exquisite. Unadorned but so evocative, a moment of fire-bright warmth in the bleak mid-winter, blessed by a precise touch of detail — American bittersweet, a variety of fruity climbing plant. A graceful nod to nature.

A simple gift by which I wish you peace this holiday.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Drawing lessons

We are, none of us, old. Not nearly as old as our parents when they were this old.
Parents shouldn't have to write their children's obituaries. — John Bingle
Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. — Jonathan Larson
Take care of yourself. Take … care … of yourself. People are counting on you.
Think how you've made someone else's life better. Appreciate that.
Greet people with a firm handshake — accept a firm handshake in return — and look them in the eye. — Richard Taniguchi
Grieve loss, of course. Of course. Plumb the fathoms of unfathomable sorrow — tethered, God help us, by someone who can draw you back up — for the loss of a child. I couldn't or wouldn't be so easily rescued at the loss of my own children; I can only imagine, but choose not to.

Grieve for young children who lose their parents, and lose the worlds built for them, and instructions for worlds yet unbuilt.

John and Greg visit a sick friend.
Soften your hearts and let the tears come for those who have come upon death, or whose loved ones have known horrible death. Comfort them as you will. Help them ease the image from their eyes, help them shake the real but unreasonable guilt that they could have averted death, as my mom found my dad, and as my sister found our mom, circumstance sparing me.

Grieve, of course. Then, laugh.

Laughter bubbled out of the chapel at the Starbuck-Lind mortuary in my hometown, the laughter of the heavy hearted, saying goodbye to our friend Greg Cox last weekend. I'm afraid I may have laughed too soon and loudly, intruding on Greg's family's need for space and peace and dignity, and I feel bad for that. But I couldn't help it, just as I couldn't help laughing after losing my parents. As vast and dark as their absence, their presence outshines.

People packed the chapel and the wings, people whom Greg touched, through many years (though we mourn it was not more). People came to honor him and his family, of course, but also to share what Greg brought to each of us. Many, many more, it was clear, were thinking of Greg from afar. We were there because of him; we were together again because of him; in ways many and various, we were going about our lives because of something Greg might have done, said, inspired.

Ageless Mr. Taniguchi, our biology teacher, shook our hands the way he had taught us, with knuckle-knocking firmness, and celebrated Greg and us. Greg's death shook him deeply, it was clear, but pride in Greg and the students he taught so long ago restored him, and laughter bubbled out with ours.

An inauspicious start: Greg's second from right in the middle row, I'm third
from right in the back row. The gentleman holding the sign, Bill Heath, spoke
heartfelt memories at Greg's memorial. Bill is a dentist in Vandenberg Village.
Some of us from elementary school through high school — some of us who had lost touch — were much like players in a stage production, having performed our act without knowing how the play ends. So when classmates and longtime friends from Stanford shared their memories, we learned the rest of the story.

Greg's role was consistent: Polite, gracious, with a gremlin's sense of disarming, sometimes disquieting, humor. Smart, yes, but hardworking, and somehow able to break off great chunks of achievement. Greg made me better by being able to hang around him, riding his coattails. Mr. Taniguchi reminded me math and science were not my strengths, but I tilted at windmills just the same. I give Greg credit for making me run to catch up.

His green Mercury Cougar with the velveteen upholstered seats and the opera windows in the back, we learn, conveyed him from our lives to the next.

Stanford friends reminded us of Greg's keen attention to others in conversation, and his ability to draw you out with thoughtful questions. Stanford friends also told what we couldn't know: His ease with talking and playing with their children, the same keen attention to what they had to say. 

At the reception, our friend John Bingle had the brave idea to seek more stories from the Stanford crowd, and I joined to listen. After, friends from long ago, friends brought in by the memory of Greg, spent the evening celebrating who we have become.

My sister, John and I spent the remainder of the weekend as tourists in our hometown, walking the beach at Surf, talking loudly over the unrelenting waves, then strolling La Purísima's mission grounds and up to the cross on the hill. The valley lay clear and crisp and gray-green on a mid-December morning.

Of my last six trips home, three have been to say final goodbyes, and at least one to help in the aftermath of a goodbye. Lompoc's grip on me is dwindling to gossamer, stretching thin.

Dawdling home, I dipped myself in the chill waters of Avila Beach, joining a group that swims every Sunday morning. We broke through the waves, then swam a mile arc out past the Avila Beach pier before trying our luck escaping heavy breakers to flop back onto shore. I had proven an amateur.

It was salve for a weekend strange and wonderful.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Put an X in the box for Cox

He was good at everything he did. Correction, he excelled.

He never lost an election, from junior high to high school, even winning office as chief justice of the supreme court at Boys State, in a short week winning the hearts and minds of some of the best and brightest among high school Californians. I imagined, right about now, he would be a U.S. Senator. He might even have employed the same mnemonic slogan he used every single time he ran, trumping complex and conniving political strategies: Put an X in the box for Cox.

My friend, Greg Cox, passed away Dec. 5. A life lived fully, and ended too early, is encapsulated here.

Regret sucks wind out of my chest. Greg and I hadn't spoken for more than 20 years. The last we met and talked was in Solvang, near our hometown of Lompoc. He joined my wife and me for Long Island iced teas — we felt so grown up — and I don't remember what we talked about. Life story stuff, probably. It was the first and only time he had met Nancy.

Greg had just finished law school, another in an amazing beaded string on his academic legacy: 4.0 grade point average (we came in advance of Advanced Placement courses) and valedictorian at Cabrillo High School, where he was also student body president; 4.0 GPA as a Stanford University undergraduate, earning degrees in political science and economics; 4.0 GPA, I'm told, at Stanford law school. And what I didn't know — among the many things I didn't know — an MBA from Stanford Business School.

Everyone who knew him would say of him, "It figures." He was our equivalent of a golden boy, the best at almost everything he did, almost entirely by his own hard work, but also by benefit of what Seneca said: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

President Greg with me as
everyone's favorite genocidal
mascot, Juan R. Cabrillo …
"Golden Boy" diminishes him. Though intelligent and gifted, he took almost nothing for granted, and harnessed his gifts with hard work. Many, many school mornings I found him already sitting at the trigonometry or physics teacher's desk, his textbook and homework laid out, going over in detail the concepts he didn't understand, until understanding ensued. It was a lesson I took with me, though I rarely applied it myself, misguidedly relying on my wits in hopes of understanding what I still don't understand.

I repeated Greg's example for my own children, with spotty success. Our teachers probably remember Greg most for his early-morning doggedness.

Besides excelling in school — and still being blamed for skewing the curve — he played varsity basketball and golf, lettering most of his high school career. In our junior year, with the addition of a talented kid who transferred from an overseas Air Force base, Greg played on one of the state championship basketball teams.

Greg just made it look easy.

He was so smart. In our introductory addresses in seventh-grade speech class, when everyone else said he or she lived at such-and-such an address, Greg said he "resided" at his "domicile." None of us knew "resided" or "domicile" or how to use them. He was an only child, his dad a judge, his mom kind and gracious; I imagine he got a lot of attention, but he also rose to high expectations. I remember even in elementary school he had a four-drawer file cabinet in his bedroom, where he kept his schoolwork organized.

Part of Greg Cox' high school legacy, courtesy of a Flickr
photographer. Trees obscure the whole phrase, "Cabrillo
Spirit Conquers All." Greg pushed for this as student body
president. I remember lengthy, sometimes bitter debates
about the wording — Cabrillo's motto is "Our Spirit
Conquers All," after all — and about whether to pay for
such a monument at all.

Wit lightning quick, he could also plant a barb deep, and mock without mercy, and box you in during an argument, smiling just before you realize you were doomed to lose. I imagine some classmates still remember with reddened faces some fierce debates during student body government meetings.

He was a Boy Scout, and had we another opportunity — one in which I likely did not badmouth Boy Scouts — I might have joined the Scouts and fulfilled my passion for backpacking way back then, rather than waiting more than 30 years when my son wanted to be a Boy Scout.

Greg as ASB president, leading
the sometimes sharp debate
over that same monument.
This and above, from
Tierra Royal, Cabrillo
High School's yearbook.
Where Greg went after Stanford, I wasn't sure, until his obituary filled in some gaps. South Dakota for a while, I heard. South Dakota? Something about venture capitalism. He was a principal for a Pacific Northwest investment firm, when he died, near Seattle. His obituary also says he worked for one of the Silicon Valley's premier law firms, in Palo Alto, before that. These are just some of a long list of achievements.

My memory of him, I'm sad to say, is stunted, locked somewhere in the late 20th Century.

In high school it was the three of us — Greg, John Bingle and me. Mr. Johnson, one of our math teachers, called us The Triumvirate; I'm not entirely sure it was a compliment.

When we had time and moments to break free from the various and sundry vagaries of high school life — girlfriends (John), jobs (Greg), term papers (all of us) — we went into default mode: Driving downtown, usually in Greg's green Mercury Cougar, just driving around town and talking, talking, talking, about things far away.

Almost always, we'd end up at Winchell's Donuts near the crosstown railroad tracks on H Street and East Laurel, each of us with a bag of doughnut holes and chocolate milk, talking more under the blanching fluorescent light until we went home.

Annoyingly taciturn now — jabbering instead with my fingers — I wonder how we could have talked so much.

Once in my senior year, I came home late (still before midnight), and my mom went into a fit and started clapping me hard on the shoulders. All the time she was punctuating her anger with her open hand, I found it funny that the worst we were doing, the worst we had ever done, was waste Greg Cox' gas and scarf doughnut holes and chocolate milk.

The stuff of legend, that was us.

On one final drive around town, our conversation comprised what I imagine so many longtime friends talk about on their last meeting: That this was not the end but the beginning, that we would always stay close, that whatever mysteries awaited us, whatever adventures, whatever families and jobs, we would enfold them into our friendship. Our future selves would radiate from this center, this foundation we had built. We wrote the same to each other in our yearbooks.

It was, in retrospect, a jinx. Greg went famously to Stanford, John to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology ("What?" we ragged him. "Where's that? An all-male university? What?"), and I stayed nearby, at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. John and Greg went on to amazing careers that early outpaced my capacity to imagine that such careers were possible.

But of course we were not the center of our forthcoming mysteries and adventures and lives. The center dissolved immediately, and off we went, rarely to reconnect.

(Now I remember that this was part of our conversation over drinks in Solvang! Greg mocked our conversation in his car that August night after our senior year; even though he was part of the treacly heart-felt conversation, his recollection almost made it sound like he was outside the car looking in, scoffing. But that was Greg as I knew him then, and I'm sure I had my snarky moments too; I also know I've changed in many ways, good and bad, over the last 20-plus years; I miss the opportunity to discover how we've changed.)

I have talked with John more often — unfortunately not much more often — the last time forgoing my high school reunion to attend John's family's memorial for his mom the summer before last.

John said later he talked with Greg during that memorial weekend. We should get together and celebrate our 50th birthdays together, Greg told John. It's been way too long.

Regret wracks me. I'm the absolute worst at doing something about catching up, looking back, revisiting, even though those impulses nag me on occasion. Facebook, thank goodness, enables effortless connections at those moments. I wonder how and when I would have learned of this bad news without it. 

How appropriate this week that I remembered our last adventure. The subject was hypothermia, because I was talking with a swimming friend who I join twice weekly on cold-water swims.

Somehow Greg, John and I talked our parents into letting us go on a week-long fishing trip in the eastern Sierra, to streams Greg fished with his dad since he was little. Somehow, I talked my parents into letting me take our truck with the camper shell where we'd bunk. Somehow, I talked myself into fishing.

For the early part of the week, we stood in jeans, waist deep in wildly rushing icy June streams, pulling out trout almost as soon as we had dropped our hooks. I know enough from having been a Scout leader that we were doing a really stupid thing.

Greg and John stayed in until sundown some days, long after I had gotten out to read or watch the landscape change. They gutted fish well into dark, stopping only when one of them realized aloud that they could easily have cut into their frozen hands and not known it with all the fish blood spilling over the rocks. It was one of several ways in which we could have gotten hurt or died on that trip, of self-inflicted knife wounds or hypothermia or car wreck or pneumonia.

Small wonder I would not have let my own kids take such a trip. I'm glad they never asked.

Before going home, we headed south out of the Sierra to Magic Mountain, talking about everything and nothing the entire way. On the homeward leg, we tired of one another for reasons that befall most people trying to have the time of their lives in close quarters, and spent long final stretches of the journey in crushing silence. Home again, we were fatigued but at peace. We were ready for wherever we would go. We were ready to move on.

That's what I choose to live on in my memory. I pray for Greg and his mom and dad.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

So I would not be a master*

With nearly every illustration — from doodle to finished piece for pay — I can remember exactly where I was, what I saw, heard, felt during its creation.

Something about the moment infuses the art, or absorbs into the myelin around my illustrating nerves, or something.

I sat on the deck outside my in-laws' trailer in southern Oregon when I drew this, almost entirely with a ballpoint pen. I'm sure you can appreciate how tedious it is to create solid masses with ballpoint pen, but I was far away from my usual drawing tools, and made lemonade out of lemons to fashion the raw naive look I wanted.

Daylight died by the time I had finished with all the links in the chains that comprise this ghoul's hair, making a dense bed on which to lay the type.

Once home from the brief trip to visit my wife's folks, I brought the image into my computer and added flourishes and color digitally.

The first go-round aimed at tightly
cropped,realistic images of the
conflicting dynamics that
enable slavery.
Victims are sought by many
interests for many reasons.
It was the culmination of a long and challenging give-and-take with editors and designers at the UC Davis Magazine to illustrate a story on the crisis of modern slavery.

The article's point: Slavery continues and grows largely because slavers can profit richly from it — and because often families conclude no other economic choice but to sell off their members.

The images went through a number of iterations, which I welcomed because two of those directing the art, Jan Conroy and Laurie Lewis, were my instructors for a graphic design program at University Extension through UC Davis (that'd be Career 2.1), and they sped me along with considered insights and fun assignments.

The challenge for this assignment was to portray that gut-punching dichotomy of economic benefit to slavers and families/communities. At first I tried more literal interpretations, thinking sepia ink wash and pen to show realistic bodies being tormented, literally pushed and pulled to symbolize the complex factors that enable slavery (above).

Then I sought more stylized visual metaphors, like this (right) and these (below):















I twisted the tools and trademarks of slavery into something more twisted, depicting slaves in new ways as commodities, as targets.

Here are some more:

Punishment collars became targets, slaves forged their own chains, took all the risk for their own doomed journeys, pulled along and pulled along by false hope that rescue would come.

Along the way, they lost themselves and became the product of work, someone's profit.

The limpid eyes in this sketch held inspiration for drawings to come …
After a lengthy discussion (lengthy for me and my art, anyway; I often get a laundry list of changes, but in this case the editors were discussing with me the philosophical reasons for wanting changes), the editors said, essentially, "Twist harder."

The editors wanted me to strip down the issue to a visceral level, to the base message of profit for oppression.

A big fan of illustrator (now sculptor) David Suter, I found this story fertile for visual puns; not funny ha ha!, but creating a primary message that encrypts a second, truer message, of which Suter was a master.



The slaves-for-cash sketch above got remade (in a crudely imperfect fashion) into a ghoulish face (left), for example.

Then a throwaway sketch, of people literally stepping over faceless others, opened up new possibilities. What if I could turn the negative spaces into "hidden" statements?

I see dead people in the negative spaces …
Scraping away as much as I could, until the figures were barely recognized as human (big, scrawled circles with big empty, strangely drawn eyes), I turned the figures into kinds of puzzle pieces I could turn and stretch to create negative spaces among them. This (below) …

… became this:

Slaves go one way, money the other, all become upside-down death …














and the cover art, above.

In the following issue, the magazine ran this letter:
I truly enjoy receiving my UC Davis Magazine. However, your recent publication depicted a truly unpleasant and downright awful illustration on its cover. Aside from the fact that the artistic ability is grade school quality, I question whether the article itself is a proper subject to feature in a magazine that has been to date generally uplifting.
Grove Bolles ’81
Lehi, Utah
Oh well. At least Mr. Bolles gave a thought to my illustration, and that thought produced enough energy to become a letter (I hope a snail mail letter, with an affixed stamp) to share his consideration with others. More consideration, I suppose, than much of my work gets. Or merits.

* As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy. — Abraham Lincoln

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Where have you gone, Andres Torres?

Old sap doodling about a time before
his time, a time that never was …
Baseball is myth, and myth is humans trying to make sense. Baseball is childhood, fun at the heart of grief. Baseball is story.

About this, I'm in the naive minority.

To most, baseball is math. Statistics drive dollars, dollars fuel victories, though not necessarily the victories we naifs expect, namely the World Series. Money rules; baseball is business. I realize now, so late, that Albert Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals' too-good-to-be-true first baseman, is duty-bound to expect and accept the highest salary in history, so that some future Pujols can do likewise, ad infinitum.

Were I Albert Pujols, I would have realized long, long ago that I made more than I could possibly need, and would seek a lesser salary now as Free Agent No. 1. But to do so would cause the market for professional athletes everywhere to implode, and the math-driven dreams to dry up forever.

[Pujols fulfilled his role in grand style today, taking a 10-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; it means two things: (1) he doesn't mind playing for the most awkwardly named team in U.S. pro sports and (2) he will demonstrate the baseball law of diminishing returns as his power recedes drastically by year three of his contract.]

When legend becomes fact,
sketch the legend.
Math trumped myth, as it always will, once again this week: the San Francisco Giants traded Andres Torres. Had he played for the Giants a decade or so ago, he might have been called one of the Fighting Hydrants — small-statured, amazingly athletic, relentless, old-school crowd favorites.

Torres is among my all-time favorites who lives a wonderful story, which includes finally finding a way to control his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder so he could focus on playing centerfield and hitting home runs. Hit or miss, Torres play full out. He even lets errant pitches go by with great energy, snapping back like a torero taunting the bull.

Torres broke through the season before last, the Giants' championship season, and well deserved the Willie Mac Award he earned for exemplifying spirit and leadership, after Giants Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. Last season Torres was lousy. Many say the championship year, Torres especially, was a fluke. I wanted so badly for Torres to prove the real fluke was last year. I still do, even as he moves to the Mets.

Salary aside, Torres is the ideal athlete. Triumphantly gifted, he sometimes performs game-saving feats. But he frequently fails spectacularly, too, in front of 42,000 paying fans and hundreds of thousands on the other side of the cameras. Often the harder he tries, the more likely he fails, flailing at pitches one would think he had learned by now to lay off. But Torres charges into the next new day, hoping, planning for better.

[Also, the Giants traded a good pitcher, Ramon Ramirez, to the Mets, and gave up on signing outfielders Cody Ross and Carlos Beltran. The wheel in the sky keeps on turnin'; I don't know where I'll be tomorrow …]

Now I do as before, make myth out of majority rule. New promising players whom I should know, but don't, will fill the roster, and I'll look for the stories among the numbers, and hang onto the stories until they break my heart again. It took me years to return to the Giants after Will Clark and Matt Williams left.

I'm not so stubborn as before.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Unworthy offspring of the Greatest Generation

Seventy years ago tomorrow, five of my mom's uncles, the Fahlgren brothers, somehow survived the Date Which Will Live in Infamy — the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, that plunged the United States into World War II.

Vern, Ervin, Glen, Warner and Gordon
Fahlgren, all served the Navy at
Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941
The date … the horrible war … the immense sacrifices by people stateside … the incomprehensible triumphs that came of a nation working as one … all dim at an alarming pace as the world twists on itself and we become removed by time.

The brothers in San Diego
The Fahlgren men are my grandmother Irene Gibson's brothers, of which she had seven. The oldest, Gordon, joined the Navy with brothers Warner and Vern in February 1941. Leonard joined the Army a month later. Brothers Glen and Ervin joined the Navy in July. Carl, the youngest, was turned down for military service.

Three of the Fahlgrens were assigned to Pearl Harbor: Gordon to the USS Vestal, a repair ship; Warner to the battleship USS Oklahoma; and Vern to the destroyer USS Hovey. At the brothers' urging, their mother — my great-grandmother, Theresa Fahlgren Lindstrom — asked the Navy to assign all her sons to the Vestal.

My great grandmother, Theresa Lindstrom,
christens the USS Susquehanna
Admiral Chester Nimitz said yes, and complimented the boys' mother for her patriotism, sending six sons into the service. In 1942, the Navy honored her patriotism by having her christen the tanker USS Susquehanna out of Tacoma, Wash.

(I'm getting all this information, by the way, from an account great-Uncle Glen had written for his family. The Billings Gazette based its own story, commemorating the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, on Glen's report. The Fahlgren boys grew up in far northern Montana.)

The Vestal was readying for war, its welders sealing the portholes of all the warships in the harbor. It tied up to the USS Arizona Dec. 5 to begin work on her. The Fahlgren brothers took liberty Dec. 6, returning to the Vestal at midnight.

Glen arose before dawn Dec. 7, 1941. A baker, he was preparing coffee cake and pumpkin pies, when after daybreak the Vestal's officers began shouting at sailors to man their stations. Glen emerged from the galley to see smoke rising from the Arizona, and a Japanese plane diving toward the Arizona and strafing the Vestal with machine gun fire. The Vestal's anti-aircraft gun jammed immediately in the fight, the commander and some of the crew struggling mightily to get it working again.

A bullet hit Vern, and shrapnel struck a ship's cook. Their chief master-at-arms was killed instantly. Minutes later, a Japanese bomb raced through the mess hall, 20 feet from where the brothers stood, the concussion knocking them flat. Another bomb at the same time plowed all the way through the Vestal and destroyed its rudder. Sailors used axes to sever the lines mooring the Vestal to the burning Arizona. A Navy tug later pulled the listing Vestal away and shoved it into shallow water to keep it from sinking.

When the Arizona's forward ammunition magazines detonated from the blast of a final, fatal Japanese bomb, the force blew the Vestal's commander and many sailors and Marines overboard. Before the commander — covered in oil — could swim aboard again and rescind it, an order to abandon ship had already been given by the executive officer. While Glen took advantage of a lull to look for his brothers — coming upon the body of a sailor blown onto his ship from the Arizona — Gordon, Vern and Warner had already gone into the water.

Gordon made it back to the ship after the attack. Vern and Warner went missing for days, and all became separated. None knew until days later that they each had been put on guns along the harbor's beaches, bracing for more Japanese attacks which did not come. I never heard — or forgot if someone told me — what became of great-Uncle Vern's wound.

The five Fahlgren brothers served together again aboard the Vestal, which was eventually returned to service in April 1942, until November of that year, when the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, all died with the sinking of the light cruiser USS Juneau. After that, the Navy prohibited so many siblings from serving together. The Fahlgren brothers were scattered about the Navy, and after the war came home safely.

They did exactly what we imagine men and women did after serving in and surviving World War II. Having helped save the world from evil, they came home and carried the United States onward and upward. All went to their homes, assumed their roles in their communities, raised their families, fulfilled the promises they forged by their sacrifice and their witness to horror. I don't know that they even talked much about their time at war; I really don't know much about them, to my shame.

I met the Fahlgren men only a few times as a kid; played at events few and far between with their children, my third cousins (if I have the lineage correct), about whom my memories are also dim.

The Fahlgren children: Ervin, Warner, Carl and Glen in back;
Vern, my grandma Irene, Gordon and Leonard
My mom told me stories about her uncles, which have since become vague summaries in my aging brain. I have always remembered the part about the Vestal captain being blown overboard; I seem to remember my mom telling me the bomb blast forced my great-Uncle Glen to throw an armload of dough overboard too.

I remember great-Uncle Gordon the most. Because he lived closest — near the C&H Sugar factory on San Pablo Bay in Crockett, Calif. — I saw him the most, which still wasn't more than two or three times. Though in youth he looked much like his brothers, he had thickened and reminded me of a friendly bulldog; even the long thin nose, a feature of the Fahlgren children, had somehow become pugnacious and friendly on Gordon, at least in my mind. One — I don't know which! — lived in Klamath Falls, Oregon. I'm not certain where the others lived.

It is sad and beyond stupid that I don't know much about them, how many are even still alive; of those who survive, I do not doubt they are meeting with the remaining survivors of Pearl Harbor somewhere, remembering the thousands who died, maybe wondering how they survived, and whether they had made the most of the life left to them.

I know only enough about them to know they did.

My grandmother passed away almost 20 years ago, and my mom nearly three years ago. Mom was my gatekeeper to her side of the family, the keeper of the stories, and in her stories and my faulty listening habits, the Fahlgren men have melded in my mind with the men of Lake Wobegon in Garrison Keillor's stories, with their Midwestern, Swedish names. I don't come across any people named Warner or Leonard or Irene. My mom said Lake Wobegon was so much like the North Dakota and Montana towns in which she was raised. I imagine the Fahlgren men as somehow stoic and mirthful.

The last I saw most of the Fahlgren men was a family reunion in 1987, two years after we got married. I joined some of them and two of my cousins for a round of golf (by the way, if you're thinking of learning golf, the worst way to start is with a bunch of people who play golf well, on a South Lake Tahoe course, on the Fourth of July, on the easily contested assumption that golf is easy); I lasted four holes before risking my well-being trying to escape the course; it is nearly impossible to walk off a fully operating golf course partway through a game.

Before I did finally leave, I sat with one of my great-uncles on a bench above the third tee — I am a piteous fool for not knowing which uncle! — who told me, "Beware the man who plays a good game of golf. It makes you wonder how well he's looking after his business and family."

In some way familiar and strange, what he told me lives in me as the legacy for which the Fahlgren men fought.

Tomorrow I'll say a prayer for them and us.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Mark Trail grows even colder

Classic Mark Trail strip: Peripheral animals are monstrously large and also talk!
The storyline in this comic strip I most love to hate (or vice versa) has now gone on for more than four months. Four months!

How sad is it that I know such a thing?

If you're just joining us for the current episode, you are a well-adjusted individual, but if you really must know: Intrepid wildlife magazine writer Mark Trail way back in July came upon a wounded goose bearing a gold band around one leg. The band bore a biblical verse.

Thus began the slowest investigation I have ever put up with as a comics fan. Not thorough, just slow. It eventually led Mark, along with leeching freelance writer Kelly Welly (weally!), a Gilbert Roland-looking French Canadian named Johnny Malotte, and Mark's dog Andy, into an idyllic and apparently unknown Canadian valley where predator and prey live in harmony.

And subsist, I gather, on Soylent Green. Maybe Charlton Heston will show up in this storyline, warning the human characters what fate awaits them; it's not such a stretch, since all the characters in Mark Trail — man, woman, boy, girl — look like Heston in hairpieces.

Trail and his gang meet Mother McQueen, the fringed buckskin jacket wearing keeper of the valley and alleged progenitor of Mountie McQueen, the police officer linked to the gold band who fails to dissuade Trail from pursuing the mysterious gold band. Damn that McQueen! Coulda saved us so much precious time.

Mother McQueen goes through a long "nothing to see here" bit, including a lie about how many gold bands exist, which the Comics Curmudgeon hilariously points out.

Gold is all that Kelly Welly can think about, and that's where the strip is now. That's where the strip has been for the last two weeks, in fact, with Kelly going bump in the night through Mother McQueen's garage, and concluding somehow that Mother McQueen hides a gold mine and uses a trained grizzly bear to carry the mined ore. Of course, it all makes so much sense!

The other characters have all but disappeared as Kelly steals Mother McQueen's gear and bearnaps her pet grizzly to hunt for the gold mine.

I'm not sure why the gold mine is important. If I found a biblical inscription on a gold bird band, which led me to a strange valley, I'd figure the gold band was readily available and would have plenty of other questions before I got around to the idea of a gold mine. But none of the other characters is pursuing those questions, and I'm not Kelly Welly. I'll be poorer for it.

The story plods on. I'm putting all my faith in Charlton Heston.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Monkey seen, monkey done: New work

Another fun assignment goes by way too fast: Namely, the remanufacture of a monkey.

A marketing firm specializing in credit union public relations asked me to make a monkey dance about the pages of a publication for kids.

Maxwell Monkey is the mascot for a Michigan credit union to encourage kids to save and learn about money management.

The marketing firm, Matrix Manager, sent me a copy of Maxwell: Kinda cute, though to be frank, not rendered particularly well.

Maxwell as he showed up
on my doorstep.
I saw some wiggle room
with the character.
The tone of the conversation with the Matrix Manager people was that the firm could use some help bringing Maxwell to life. At least, that's what I heard and, deciding to ask forgiveness rather than permission, I went for a Maxwell makeover.

I didn't want to ask if Maxwell absolutely had to be drawn as he was sent to me — like maybe he was created by the credit union CEO's daughter, or the CEO him/herself — because I didn't want to know the answer.

But if Maxwell was going to do what the Matrix Manager folks wanted, he at least had to have limber limbs.

First things first, a quick render of some ways Maxwell could look:
Whew! The client chose the middle sample, which affords versatility and reproduces well. I would have liked to explore the sculptural figures on the right, though.

I didn't receive specific instructions on how to pose Maxwell, so I just imagined what a monkey child would do, and drew up a barrel full:

Maxwell benefits from a long illustrated monkey legacy, including Curious George (whom my son called CURE-uh-see George when he was quite little), Disney's version of The Jungle Book, and Paul Frank's Julius the Monkey. I'm sure monkey images have been stewing in my monkey brain for quite some time. Plus, monkeys are absolutely the most fun to sketch at the zoo. Try it sometime.

The sketches helped spur the credit union to choose five specific poses, the finished remainder I bring you herewith. 'Twas fun while it lasted (sigh):

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bragging on our kids

(Warning: The following post contains mushy, sanctimonious tripe. If you don't like people bragging about their kids — and I can't blame you — let me recommend The Comics Curmudgeon, Axe Cop, or a link to Sanjay Patel, a Pixar animator whose illustrations knock me flat, to pass the time. Or brag about your kids on a blog, and direct me to it.)

One of the page treaments our son created as art director of Chico State's The Orion.
My kids hardly ever call, and by that I mean hardly ever send emails or message me on facebook (they know my cell phone is usually off or lost, so actually calling is impossible anyway), but I'm fine with that. I know they're busy, and I want them to go out and build their lives. Though I miss them, I know they have accomplishments to accomplish.

(To be fair, they call their mom often. All of them exist on a much higher technological plane. If you consider typing with your thumbs an advancement.)

I'll see them this week for Thanksgiving, which makes me realize how extra thankful I am for them. They have given my wife and me little to worry about and much to wonder at as they grow.

They've grown — as I wrote once in a poem about children yet to come — good and strong and glad.

That's good parenting, you might be inclined to say. Eh. Good modeling can't hurt, but Lord knows I could have been a better model. I think it comes down to me being extremely fortunate that they comprise my family.

They aren't becoming what I imagined when I wrote to them before they were born, and I'm fine with that too. They just prove the limits of my imagination.

Our daughter is really just beginning her college life in Oregon. Though I'm looking forward to what she eventually does with her studies — I think it's still in flux — I'm most proud of the journey she has taken to date.

A year ago she wanted to come home, regroup and rethink, after just a few months being away, and we were all for it— until we realized that might be the worst-case scenario for her. California's public universities are going through a slow motion implosion, taking our taxes with it and seeking more, and the community colleges are filling with refugees from those university systems. She might not have had anywhere to go once she got home.

We urged her instead not only to stay, but to become a resident of Oregon to reduce tuition costs and her looming loan debt. That path is full of big hurdles, namely showing that you're not in Oregon to go to school but support yourself, for a year.

Realizing she had already made good friends, planted roots in a church group for college students, and bonded with her school (Eugene is crazy in love with its university; it's so amazing to me how few students on campus DON'T wear their green-and-yellow Oregon Ducks gear), our daughter decided she would stay.

Every step since then has been a struggle, but she has plugged on. She even stayed in Oregon through the summer to get the process started early. She looked for work, and looked, and looked, and looked. She made lists and plans, she carried out those plans, and ran into a lot of walls as a result. Sure, when she called it was to complain about how hard everything was, but after each call she tried again.

Even when she found work, she struggled with it: The hours, or lack thereof, the lost personal life, the feeling of being outside the university community looking in, knowing college friends are having their college fun without her. But she continued to list and plan, and continued to work her plan.

I can't say she's fine with where she is — even this week she ran into big bumps — but she has begun to find a groove, adapting and overcoming. She takes the minimum units of classes allowed under the Oregon residency requirements, to keep herself on track, and stays busy with work and her duties within her youth group. Our baby, in other words, is growing up.

Our son will soon finish his time as art director of the university's weekly newspaper, The Orion, and will stay a while longer in school to broaden his experiences. He loves the job, which comes with a lot of pressure, because the newspaper is a longtime winner in national newspaper design contests.

He loves graphic design, which is his major; he loves especially the history of it, the work of those who went before. (Most people, hearing this and knowing me, say something like, "Duh!" But we rarely did artistic things together, and he found this love on his own, spending many, many days teaching himself Adobe Photoshop by making many miniature montages of words and pictures. He knows a lot more than I about design and technique.)

One day last year, a well-known consultant came to the school newspaper design staff and said, "Since your time is short here and your job is to design, why don't you redesign the paper?"

Our son took it to heart and spent his spring break breaking down the newspaper and rebuilding it into a new design, with new column widths, new design rules, new nameplate, almost new everything. Then he drew up the new design rules, returned to school, selected and trained his staff on the rules, then let the talented designers go to explore in this new playground he built.

Designing a publication is a mystery to me, so I'm in awe. I'm also amazed how soon in life he has managed to learn how to manage — such a tricky, nebulous art — to let creative people have their space, to trust them to excel at design on deadline. I don't have a lot to show of his work on the paper, because his work is the unseen framework on which others design.

Something about reading The Orion online last week gave me an overwhelming sense of wonder at what our children are doing and becoming, and I look forward to seeing them soon. Bring your children close, give them a call, be thankful.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Something wicked good this way comes

One good result from 9/11 — if any — is the creation of something called meetup.com. It's an online tool with which people can form and organize clubs for just about any joint interest imaginable.

Without meetup.com, I might still be wondering how and whether I would swim in the open water. About this time last year, I had committed to swimming Alcatraz in the summer, but I fretted about ever getting open-water experience.

Then I stumbled upon the Sacramento Swimming Enthusiasts, a club on meetup.com, which promotes exactly what I was looking for. The guy running this club organized an "Intro to swimming San Francisco Bay" event at Aquatic Park in San Francisco, and I got a chance to swim with an instructor at the South End Rowing Club. Swimming in the chill ocean, without a wetsuit: I had begun a new addictive adventure.

(When I say anybody can form a club, I mean it: The only other Sacramento-area swim club on meetup.com is the River Dippers, who swim and do a bunch of other stuff, as long as it's in the nude.)

Since then, I've been swimming in open-water five to seven days a week (not with the River Dippers, though), having befriended and learned from people I never would have met otherwise, from newbies like me to hardened triathletes to elite swimmers who leave me in their wake.

Instead of swimming by myself at a gym pool at 4:30 in the morning, I'm out in the broad daylight on a clear lake ringed with sweetly scented sycamores and rolling hills. Ironically, I'm still by myself these days, since most of the Sacramento Swimming Enthusiasts have either retreated to their respective pools as the lake temperature has dropped, or fellow diehards live too far away to swim with me every day. But that's beside the point.

On the eve of 9/11's 10th anniversary, I got an email from Scott Heiferman, meetup.com's CEO and co-founder, who called meetup.com a "9/11 baby."

Before that date, Heiferman said he was an un-neighborly New Yorker, cocooned on his Internet.

"When the towers fell," he wrote, "I found myself talking to more neighbors in the days after 9/11 than ever before. People said 'Hello' to neighbors (next door and across the city) who they'd normally ignore. People were looking after each other, helping each other, and meeting up with each other. You know, being neighborly."

That got Heiferman thinking, "Could we use the Internet to get off the Internet — and grow local communities?"

The small startup has now helped spawn more than 100,000 meetup groups across the country, he said.

"9/11 didn't make us too scared to go outside or talk to strangers," he wrote. "9/11 didn't rip us apart. We're building new communities together. The towers fell, but we rise up."

If the narrative is true (I am nothing if not an indefatigable skeptic), it's a wonderful story, and I am deeply thankful for it during this season.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Three Wise Truisms

I call him Commie Santa, the Hero of Industrial Plenitude the Soviets
were getting ready to honor with a statue before their collapse.
Wait, did I miss them, the true harbingers of the Christmas season?!!

You know them, those black-and-white cologne commercials in which gaunt models, starved for love and food, suggest their desire for both with mouths agape and eyes distant and flashing. The angry sea crashes dangerously close.

Those commercials, of course, signal Christmas is coming: Put eau de toilette at the top of your list, and prepare for the onslaught of wanton consumerism disguised as warm televised (also, computerized) nourishment for the soul.

But I missed these warnings and got swept out to the sea of Ad Nauseam.

In the early going, the commercials follow three basic truisms:

[1] For God so loved the world that he gave you this smartphone. It is the greatest gift to humankind, dispensing world peace and, judging by some commercials, dispatching alien invaders.

[2] No greater love hath any mother than to make sure her children get only the coolest gifts and shame every other mother for falling short. The spirit of Christmas manifest.

[3] It is nothing to give your loved one a new car for Christmas. A trifle. So obvious, the Acura and Mercedes Benz and Lexus and Audi makers seem practically embarrassed to suggest such a thing. We have celebrated that holiday tradition so many times — walking our loved one, hands over his/her eyes, out to our brick-paved driveways, swept clean but banked on its edges with storybook sugar-crystal snowdrifts, to the gleaming new automobile — that we risk driving into a rut. But we buy a new car for Christmas each year because of course it transcends joblessness and economic disaster. In fact, it solves both, especially the tenuous production of gigantic bows to place atop the sedans.

It's time to surrender to the Ad Nauseam. No better way than to sing the carols twisted into sales pitches ("Talking in a Winter Wonderland!" or the flash mob, "We wish you a Merry Christmas, but at the mall you're spending too much!") or camp out in front of the Hallmark Channel, which will roll out nine 14 (!) original Christmas-themed movies to go with its collection of umpteen, and has already been showing Christmas movies since before Halloween! Halleluia!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Veterans deserve more from me

A letter to myself; you can read over my shoulder if you want:

Despite my objections to the wars the United States have fought the last
20+ years (which these 'toons elucidate), I support the warriors who
have gone in my stead. I just haven't done nearly enough to show for it.
Really, what the hell is the matter with us?

If we are truly a county worthy of our many and sundry ideals, we'd focus our collective will on two matters:

[1] The education of our children, who would advance those ideals and solve dire world problems that grow only more dire daily— as long as we see to the children's preparation.  But we risk leaving our children lacking for those tasks, or at least much less prepared than the generation sending them to school.

Seniors at a retirement development near my home made news last month by adopting a public school, harnessing their wisdom and patience to help students. It's a tremendously generous effort, and absolutely perfect, because what students need above all is mentors to accompany them on the journey of mastering concepts. It's one thing for a teacher to control the learning environment for 32-plus children, and keep them on task for most of the school day; it's something more entirely for a teacher to make sure each of those students actually learns.

The best of the best teachers master it after years of practice, and master it by overcoming students' various learning disabilities or their initial inability to speak and read English. Even the master teachers, though, welcome the help of the community to leverage the results of their enormous task.


Those seniors shouldn't be newsworthy, because their endeavor should not be rare. Every community should join them. Every business whose growth and vision depends on these children, as intelligent producers and consumers and stewards, should be in the classrooms, modeling citizenship, making sure students succeed.

But that's not what I wanted to write about, even though I know a little bit. On the eve of Veterans Day, I meant to write about something about which I know nothing:


[2] The support of our veterans.

Their sacrifice should be uppermost in our minds and in our actions every day, not just Veterans and Memorial days, not just in the wake of news of the full "battle rattle" of war.

They should go to the front of every line, get free meals at every restaurant, the best tickets to the best events, not just tomorrow but every day. They should have jobs. They should have our jobs.

Can you imagine, veterans having to struggle just to find jobs?! Veterans who have done our bidding, to have faced unimaginable, indescribable, soul-shredding horrors, and then to see our backs turned on them when they come back in the world. President Obama last week proposed credits to employers for hiring veterans with disabilities, though in fairness to employers, the credits wouldn't pay the necessary resources to hire and train new employees. Why couldn't we/shouldn't we commit so much more?

Or imagine having to fight to get fixed for what war has broken. Veterans who went in our place, so badly broken physically and psychologically, and then being put in the position of having to advocate for their care and their families' welfare. Imagine families of warriors killed in action, having to fight for benefits.

Their care should be a given, and it should be given freely and immediately and generously, with all the resources we have at hand.

Even veterans who managed by good fortune or the nature of their missions not to suffer wounds of war nonetheless have given up their civilian lives for us, and deserve our thanks and generosity for their sacrifice.

Though I hate the wars in my lifetime fought on behalf of my country, I love the warriors. Not that they would know, because as one who made the choice not to serve, not to fight, I'm a hollow fake who doesn't really know what to do or how to give thanks.

Without a wink of effort, I can rattle off at least a dozen high school classmates, including my neighbor Buddy, who joined the armed services; I know at least five officers among them. One was a college roommate. One became a school teacher and was recalled to active duty in the Marines in Iraq; he got the call-up on a Friday and was gone from the classroom by Monday, without a moment to tell his students goodbye.

In time I have come to know veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan under presidents George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush. I met one family whose last four generations have sent soldiers to war, and who might see the current generation go. My dad was a veteran who joined the Air Force under age to get out from under his stepfather's grip; he credits his time with getting him "squared away," being accountable to his family and community.

They went in my stead, all of them, because our volunteer armed services represents such a small portion — not even 1 percent — of our population.

We are a different 99 percent; don't you think we could use our leverage to help the few who served in our armed forces?

Veterans account for only 13 percent of the total population. Factor in veterans' immediate families, that probably leaves 60 percent of Americans who have not been touched directly by sacrifice in the armed services — a silent majority who can do more for those who served.

"Thanks" seems so small and ineffectual. A friend frequently posts tributes to veterans on facebook; though I appreciate the posts and the compassion behind them, I don't acknowledge them because I don't feel I'm the right person to respond. In a stupid and weird way, I rarely give to care packages because it feels like I'm endorsing the reason warriors are there, and helping prolong their presence; in my misguided way, I think I'll hasten their return this way.

Dumb. I can do more, and should.

Parade Magazine last weekend published tips for honoring veterans — concrete, local ideas that I can do year-round. I can do more for those who went in my place.